Descartes’ Meditative Turn
Cartesian Thought as Spiritual Practice
Christopher J. Wild


Introduction: Descartes’ Meditative Turn and the Tradition of Spiritual Exercises

The Question of Descartes’ Spirituality

Why did René Descartes, the founding father of early modern rationalist philosophy, choose “meditations,” a practice and genre associated with religious piety and devotion at the time, for the title of his magnum opus that lays the metaphysical foundations for his reform of all knowledge, including mathematics and science? Similarly, why did Descartes preface the Meditations with a letter to the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne in which he claims that he has discovered a new way to convert unbelievers by rational and, therefore, more reliable means? Or why does his meditator at the end of the Third Meditation, at the almost exact center of the text, engage in an almost ecstatic visionary experience, resembling those described by Saint Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Bonaventure, before they begin turning back toward the sensory world?

Most modern readers, whether professional or casual, don’t pose these kinds of questions, let alone answer them in a comprehensive and convincing manner. As a consequence, most scholars understand “meditating” merely as a synonym for concentrated and sustained thinking, stripping it of its devotional provenance and failing to account for its specific character as an intellectual and spiritual practice. Similarly, the prefatory letter to the Faculty of the Sorbonne is either entirely ignored or is explained—with a palpable embarrassment—as a transparent attempt by Descartes to placate the religious authorities to avoid Galilei’s fate of censorship and persecution. Accordingly, his claim that the Meditations is a new and universal tool in the Catholic Church’s propaganda fidei is read as a calculated dissimulation on Descartes’ part and does not reflect his true beliefs. Finally, the aforementioned passage of a beatific vision at the end of the Third Meditation gets simply passed over by the entire Descartes scholarship so that there are not even a handful of serious attempts at explicating this enigmatic passage, a fact that is even more puzzling, as the passage reads like the climactic moment of the meditator’s “interior journey.”

These three instances of omission in reading the Meditations accurately and attentively are part of a more general trend to downplay the religious and spiritual dimension of Descartes’ thought. Taking these passages seriously and examining them in their wider context would mean unsettling the common narrative that Descartes is the main protagonist in the early modern project of reforming knowledge by emancipating philosophy and science from their medieval servitude to theology. While this narrative of Descartes as the founding father of modern secular philosophy goes back all the way to Kant and German idealism,1 modern analytic philosophy has been even more radical in stripping Descartes of any cumbersome baggage belonging to an earlier “unenlightened” era and reducing his thought to issues of interest to modern mainstream philosophers, such as nature of the mind, the epistemological foundation of knowledge, or philosophy as a method for the sciences. What has emerged as a consequence is the image of Descartes as an epistemologist who is primarily interested in determining what if anything can be known for certain. In the last decades this view has been complemented or displaced by the image of Descartes as a scientist whose metaphysics is wholly subservient to his building of a new scientific system that encompasses the entire universe and is capable of explaining everything within the natural world. But Descartes the scientist is as secular as Descartes the epistemologist, and any religious atavisms, for instance, his talk of God and the immortality of the soul, have been readily jettisoned as disposable philosophical ballast. Not surprisingly, these two dominant perspectives of Descartes focus on epistemological and scientific questions that herald modern and contemporary philosophy and science. Thereby, Descartes becomes a mere gateway to the present, eclipsing the complex historical context of his thought.

Of course, the rendition I gave of Descartes’ image in modern philosophy is a caricature. Like any caricature it is exaggerated, but it is also true enough to be recognizable; and it is true enough to have prompted the aforementioned omissions by modern Descartes scholarship and, more generally, to have shaped the dominant mode of understanding the Meditations as an ensemble of philosophical arguments scrutinized for their propositional content and validity. One of the implicit premises of reading for argument is the assumption that Descartes’ manner of presentation is more or less transparent and that the language and rhetorical style, generic form, narrative organization, grammatical structures, and lexical choices of the Meditations do not affect the validity of their claims and effect on their readers. This could not be further from the truth. Throughout his life Descartes was extraordinarily deliberate about how he communicated his ideas and discoveries to the European Republic of Letters. In fact, Descartes systematically experimented with various philosophical genres over the course of his career, carefully coordinating propositional content, textual form, and communicative function. Descartes’ Meditative Turn is, therefore, guided by the heuristic assumption that Descartes was convinced that the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, which the text promises to demonstrate, could be made self-evident only through meditating and that he deliberately chose the genre of meditation to lay the metaphysical foundations for his philosophy and science.

The Spiritual Dimension of Philosophy

If most modern readers of Descartes fail to take seriously the religious dimension of his thought, we should not make the opposite mistake of overseeing philosophy’s contribution to the history of meditative thought and practice. Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault remind us that meditation or, more precisely, spiritual exercises were integral to the practice of philosophy in antiquity. Ancient philosophy, according to Hadot, was a “form of life defined by an ideal of wisdom.”2 Indeed, all of the philosophical schools were distinguished by their own characteristic form of life, which included devising their own specific regime of exercises to guide the self on the path toward wisdom as the ultimate goal. Philosophy was not primarily about teaching abstract theories or interpreting texts but about a set of practices. If we are to achieve wisdom, philosophy demands the “metamorphosis of our personality” and the “transformation of our vision of the world” (PWL 82)—in short, the conversion of the self. In a sense, conversion was the beginning and the end of philosophy, for only when the self achieves its telos of wisdom is its conversion complete. Like meditation, conversion was thus not exclusively a religious phenomenon but had deep roots in the ancient philosophy that informed its Christian variants as well.

The self’s transformation occupies a similarly pivotal place in Foucault’s account of ancient philosophy, developed at length in his lectures on the Hermeneutics of the Subject. Conversion is the most radical form of transformation of the self, undertaken “so as to be able to have access to the truth.”3 Conversion “to the self” implies “constituting oneself as an object and domain of knowledge (connaissance)” (HS 253). It is characteristic of ancient philosophy from Plato on, according to Foucault, that the subject must pay a “price” to have access to truth, and that price is its transformation. This fundamental principle of ancient philosophy holds true for Christianity as well, with the difference that truth in the latter case is mediated by a sacred text and its understanding depends on paying the price. Foucault identifies this work of the self on itself with the phrase epimeleia heautou, which he interprets as “care of the self, attending to oneself, being concerned with oneself” (HS 2) and which was translated into Latin as cura sui. In contrast, following Foucault, the self’s unmediated access to the truth (of itself) is captured in the Delphic injunction to “know thyself,” or gnōthi seauton, which owing to Socrates became the founding expression of Western philosophy. Significantly, meditation or spiritual exercise, in Greek meletē, the etymological root of epimeleia (HS 11), is not linked with the self-reflectivity of the gnōthi seauton but with the care of the self. Meditation is essentially the work that the philosophical subject must undertake to gain access to truth and reach wisdom and complete its conversion.

Despite significant differences, Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault are united in their effort to unearth what Hadot calls “philosophy as a way of life,” and Foucault the “care for the self,” from the layers of sediment under which it has been buried by the subsequent history of philosophy and its historiography. In the very first lecture of the Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault asks: “Why did Western thought and philosophy neglect the notion of epimeleia heautou (care of the self) in its reconstruction of its own history” and instead “accorded so much privilege, value, and intensity to the ‘know yourself’”? (HS 12). A few pages later Foucault renames the adversaries in more familiar terms. Gnōthi seauton stands in for philosophy, and epimeleia heautou for spirituality. Foucault’s question thus becomes: How did philosophy so completely displace spirituality? Hadot poses the same question in distinguishing between the “discourse about philosophy and philosophy itself” (PWL 266), noting that “historians of philosophy pay little attention to the fact that ancient philosophy was, first and foremost, a way of life” (269). In the historians’ view philosophy is above all philosophical discourse. And the question for Hadot is how to account for this prejudice taking root.

For Hadot and Foucault the answer to this question is that it occurred much earlier than expected with the emergence of philosophy as a university discipline in the Middle Ages. Initially, Christianity understood itself as the true heir of ancient philosophy, the vera philosophia. The Christian Apologists of the second century, in particular Justin, were the first to conceive of Christianity as philosophy and, more precisely, as the definitive philosophy. The church fathers who had received a philosophical education spoke of “our philosophy” or “the philosophy according to Christ” (PWL 129).4 When monasticism emerged as the perfection of a Christian way of life, it could similarly style itself as a quest for wisdom. As Jean Leclercq has shown, monastic writers throughout the Middle Ages continued designating their form of life with the term philosophia.5 This easy embrace of ancient philosophy by early Christianity can be explained by the fact that the former was never abstract but a way of life and a practice of wisdom. And not surprisingly, its practical dimension, that is, the spiritual exercises, could be easily assimilated by Christianity because they presented no conflict with different doctrinal positions. It was as a consequence of theology’s consolidation as a discipline at medieval universities that “the confusion which had existed in primitive Christianity between theology, founded on the rule of faith, and traditional philosophy, founded on reason” (PWL 270), ended and the segregation of philosophy and spirituality came about. Philosophy was no longer the royal way to wisdom, the ultimate goal of all human striving, but was demoted to the “handmaiden” of theology, supplying the latter with conceptual and logical tools for use in its higher calling. Concomitantly, spiritual exercises or, more generally, the practice of spirituality, became the domain of pious devotion and mysticism. Ceasing to be holistic, philosophy was no longer a way of life but became a “purely theoretical and abstract activity” (270). This despiritualization of philosophy was reinforced by its status as a university discipline. Those who engaged in philosophy did so not for the sake of Bildung, that is, self-transformation, and the intention of those who taught it was not to direct others toward wisdom but to produce specialists who in turn would produce another generation of specialists. It is not surprising that the philosophy of the Middle Ages became known as “Scholasticism,” that is, philosophy of and for scholae (school) and not vitae (for life). And it is also no coincidence that Scholasticism was identified with the name of Aristotle, the ancient philosopher for whom, as Foucault observed, “the question of spirituality was least important” (HS 17).

While Foucault by and large agrees with Hadot’s assessment of Scholasticism’s role in despiritualizing philosophy,6 it is the advent of the modern age, “when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth” (HS 17), that puts the nail in the coffin of the practice of spirituality. While he calls this epochē half-jokingly the “Cartesian moment,” he does not pin it on Descartes alone.7 The work of “requalifying the gnōthi seauton and of discrediting the epimeleia heatou” (14) begins long before Descartes and continues until this day. In fact, his statements about Descartes’ role in this process, scattered across his lectures, are inconsistent and contradictory,8 evidencing the power of his reception by the philosophical tradition rather than reflecting his actual intellectual practice. On the one hand, Foucault sees the “Cartesian approach” place self-evidence (l’évidence) at the “origin” of philosophizing. The cogito, that is, the Cartesian gnōthi seauton, is immediately self-evident and gives access to truth without any precondition, thereby making the spiritual transformation of the self obsolete. On the other hand, Foucault concedes that the concept of meditation “not as the game the subject plays with his thought but as the game thought plays on the subject, is basically exactly what Descartes was still doing in the Meditations, and is indeed precisely the meaning he gave to ‘meditation’” (358). This characterization of the Meditations recalls Foucault’s more nuanced assessment of Descartes’ place in the history of spirituality expressed ten years earlier in his reply to Derrida’s critique of the History of Madness. Here Foucault holds a very different view of Cartesian meditation, one much closer to the epimeleia heatou at the center of his later work. Meditation transforms the self and, thereby, gives it access to truth: “A ‘meditation’ produces, as so many discursive events, new utterances that carry with them a series of modifications of the enunciating subject: through what is said in meditation, the subject passes from darkness to light, from impurity to purity, from the constraint of passions to detachment, from uncertainty and disordered movements to the serenity of wisdom, and so on.”9 Like the student of ancient philosophy, Descartes’ meditator has “to pay a price” and let themself be transformed by using the Meditations to experience the self-evidence of the cogito and thereby have access to truth. The inconsistencies or contradictions in Foucault’s account reflect Descartes’ Janus-faced position within philosophy and the history of knowledge more generally, in the discrepancy between his historical reception, on the one hand, and his actual philosophical practice, on the other. They point, moreover, to the need for a fuller explanation of how it is that Descartes’ reform of thought, which revives an older practice of knowledge, ushers in the new modern and scientific era.

Viewed before the backdrop of the history of spirituality, Descartes’ Meditative Turn is an attempt to reverse the turn taken by philosophy in the Middle Ages and to recover and reboot its lost spiritual practices. That Descartes’ comprehensive reform of knowledge was directed against Scholastic Aristotelianism is well documented and researched, with historians of philosophy usually focused on their diverging arguments. But Descartes’ reform of knowledge concerned not only its contents—his mechanistic physics, materialistic psychology, or intellectualistic epistemology—but also its practice, in both the narrower sense of his method and the wider sense of a way of life. In contrast to his scientific method, which is by and large innovative, breaking sufficiently with the past for Descartes to be commonly construed as the founding father of modern philosophy and one of the principal protagonists in the scientific revolution, his practice as a way of life harks back to older traditions of thought that had been crowded out or displaced by Scholastic Aristotelianism. Put succinctly, Descartes’ campaign against Scholasticism always also involves the repatriation of wisdom, which had been relegated to theology in the Middle Ages, to philosophy, as well as the reevaluation of philosophical practice. For instance, Descartes’ programmatic preface to the French edition of his own textbook of philosophy, the Principia philosophiae, with which he intended to replace its Scholastic predecessors, begins by redefining philosophy (in the sense of “defining back”): “The word ‘philosophy’ means the study of wisdom, and by ‘wisdom’ is meant not only prudence in our everyday affairs but also a perfect knowledge of all things that mankind is capable of knowing, both for the conduct of life and for the preservation of health and the discovery of all manner of skills” (CSM I 179; AT IXB 2).10 For Descartes philosophy is not theoretical but, quite to the contrary, practical knowledge, knowledge that enables us to live the “good life.” The famous image Descartes offers a little later to illustrate his program of knowledge reform reinforces his holistic understanding of philosophy:

The whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely, medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom. (CSM I 186; AT IXB 14)

In Descartes’ eyes, philosophy should not be limited to solving formal and logical problems, leaving the big questions concerning the human condition to other disciplines. On the contrary, as noted, Descartes’ commitment to philosophy is sed vitae, as opposed to the Scholasticism dominating European universities throughout the early modern period.11

Given that the telos of philosophy is to reach the ultimate level of wisdom, it should not come as a surprise that the beginning of philosophy, its act of foundation, began for Descartes with a dramatic conversion in the famous stove-heated room during his travels through southwestern Germany in the winter of 1619. Descartes’ Meditative Turn argues that the turn toward meditation allowed him to operationalize this discovery. The spiritual and cognitive exercises, derived from ancient philosophy and the Christian meditative tradition, that Descartes deployed in the Meditations enable readers to discover for themselves the immortality of the soul and the idea of God’s essence and existence—with the same degree of self-evidence with which Descartes did during his own conversion. The “meditative turn” of the book’s title, therefore, refers not only to Descartes’ turn to meditation as textual genre but also to the turn enacted by the meditator and, thus, the reader of the Meditations, away from the sensory world and toward the self, its innate ideas, and the indwelling natural light implanted by God. By formulating a new brand of “metaphysical meditations,” which was the title of the authorized French translation, Descartes followed in the footsteps of so many founders of philosophical schools and religious movements, from Plato and Augustine to Luther and Ignatius, who codified the spiritual insights they gained in their conversion through their own brand of spiritual and cognitive practices. By activating the inherent metaphoricity of conversion (from the Latin convertere, “to turn over”), Descartes’ Meditations articulates its own version of the “art of turning,” Socrates’ famous definition of philosophy in the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic.12 Descartes’ meditative turn brings to a culmination his lifelong preoccupation with the practice or craft of thinking, commonly known as the Cartesian method. By joining meditation to method the Meditations on First Philosophy becomes the founding document for Cartesianism, a new practice of both thought and life.

The Surge of Spirituality in Early Modern Europe

Descartes was not alone in his rediscovery of meditation and spiritual practice, as late medieval and early modern Europe saw a surge of spirituality. It sprang from the pervasive and unnerving lack of confidence among the laity and even many clerics in the ability of traditional religious institutions and media or, put less abstractly, of the church’s representatives and sacraments, to communicate salvation to the faithful in the face of a myriad of crises. This soteriological insecurity led to various reform movements both within the Catholic Church and beyond, ultimately resulting in the emergence of the religious denominations of the Reformation. A common response to this crisis of religious mediation and communication,13 and one with the advantage of requiring no institutional framework, was to turn inward. All people could take care of their soul and its salvation. All could pay heed to their spiritual life without relying on traditional mediators and media of salvation. Frequently, this turn toward the interior self, when accompanied by an intensification of faith and devotion, was understood and represented as a conversion. And just as frequently, this renewal of the inner self involved a regime of spiritual practices and meditative techniques that helped effect and stabilize it.

One of the most prominent examples of this renewed inwardness, and one germane to the cultural and historical context of Descartes, was the so-called modern devotion, or devotio moderna, a late medieval movement of religious reform that flourished in the Low Countries and Northern Germany and came to an end with the Reformation.14 The devotio moderna began as a movement among dissatisfied laity that promoted spiritual reform and the intensification of personal piety by focusing on inner devotion and meditation. The principal practice was methodical prayer in coordination with exercises arranged day by day and week by week.15 This methodical approach to meditative prayer spread throughout Europe as far as Spain. By way of Garcia de Cisneros, the abbot of Montserrat, the meditative methods of the devotio moderna reached Ignatius of Loyola, whose own exercises were influenced by his compatriot’s book Ejercitatorio de la vida spiritual (Exercises of the spiritual life). By the time the movement was absorbed into the Reformation, it had become part of lay spirituality across a considerable expanse of Europe. Thus, the turn toward the interior self of the late medieval reform movements went hand in hand with the “secularization” of monastic meditation (in the sense that it was no longer the exclusive “property” of monastic orders), as meditative practices jumped the cloister walls to become part of lay devotion.

It should come as no surprise that the sundry Evangelical reform movements borrowed liberally from older meditative and spiritual practices as well. Luther was intimately acquainted with the spiritual practices of the Augustinian order to which he initially belonged.16 Two seminal meditative texts of the devotio moderna, Gerard Zerbolt’s De spiritualibus ascensionibus (Of spiritual ascents) and Johannes Mauburnus’s Rosetum exercitiorum spiritualium et sacrarum meditationum (Rose garden of spiritual exercises and sacred meditations), were important enough to him to merit being singled out by name, the latter, contrary to habit, even with page numbers, evidencing a deep knowledge of their spiritual practices. Significantly, meditation played a pivotal role in the so-called tower experience, his breakthrough in understanding justification, following the pattern of a classical conversion by reading. Plagued by a “fierce and troubled conscience” Luther found respite in scripture: “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’17 By enacting the principal scriptural endorsement of meditative practice in the injunction of Psalm 1:2 “to meditate day and night,” Luther follows John Cassian’s advice to use the verse to remember God whenever the mind strays. Luther’s conversion is not only brought about by meditation, but meditation helps him stabilize and replicate it in the practice of meditative Bible reading that was shaped by Luther’s hermeneutic conversion.

In the Evangelical context, meditative practices may have been not as systematically regimented, lest they appear as a form of good works, and are therefore more circumstantial. But they were no less widespread. Joseph Hall’s Occasional Meditations (1630), to which I turn in Chapter 4, inaugurated a new meditative genre that could be integrated into one’s daily routine and, consequently, became extremely popular across confessions and borders. In general, it is important to note the confessional versatility and fluidity of spiritual exercises. Whereas doctrine and ritual were the focal points of intense confessional conflict, spiritual practices were much less fraught, so borrowing led to commonalities often outweighing differences. In the way the spiritual exercises of ancient philosophy remained implicit and tacit knowledge, as a result attracting little scholarly attention, the spiritual exercises of religious devotion largely escaped confessional controversy.

The best-known example for such a regimen of spiritual exercises is undoubtedly Ignatius’s Exercitia spiritualia (Spiritual Exercises), which became the foundation for the institutional and artistic practice of the Jesuit order and decisively influenced Catholic spirituality in early modern Europe and beyond. In the Ignatian exercises, the relationship between meditation and conversion (discussed in detail in Chapters 1 and 2) is especially tight. For their purpose is to aid the exercitant in making an election, modeled on Christianity’s “big” conversions of Saint Matthew and Saint Paul; and their conversive mechanics are informed by Ignatius’s own experience of conversion. Rendering the exercitant a virtual eyewitness of the life and suffering of Christ, the exercises formed the basis of the order’s apostolic mission to convert heathens in the new world and to reconvert Protestants at home.

As the principal means for reconverting Protestants was education, the Societas Jesu set up a network of colleges across Europe. In some parts of the Catholic territories the Jesuits had a near monopoly on the education of the political and cultural elites.18 Combining piety and erudition (pietas et eruditio), Jesuit education was informed by the order’s distinct spirituality. Students often underwent the spiritual exercises to some degree, albeit mostly in abbreviated form. Nonetheless, the Jesuit spiritual practices permeated many other parts of their education. For instance, the plays in which the most advanced students performed in the context of the rhetoric curriculum advanced the cause of the Catholic faith and staged key tenets of Jesuit spirituality. In fact, their performance was, in a way, a spiritual exercise in its own right, designed to aid the students in absorbing what they had learned.19 In short, students at Jesuit colleges were always also “inspired” by Ignatian spirituality, including Descartes, who would have been extensively and intensively exposed to Jesuit spiritual and intellectual culture during his eight years at the College of La Flèche, whether or not he actually underwent the Ignatian exercises.20 Thereby, he would have been acquainted with many of the spiritual techniques of the Societas Jesu, which often had no exclusive claim on them, as they were part of the repertoire of late medieval and early modern piety. Until the end of his life Descartes acknowledged his intellectual debt and expressed gratitude for his Jesuit education.

While the Jesuits were an overwhelming influence shaping the spiritual milieu of early modern Europe, which is true in particular of Descartes, they were not the only ones. A plethora of Catholic reform movements were to be found in France. One of the most important ones, the Congregation of the French Oratory devoted to the reform of Catholic clergy, was spearheaded by Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle.21 Bérulle was not only a major meteorological force in the spiritual climate of France but also may have intervened more directly in Descartes’ spiritual and intellectual evolution.22 Adrien Baillet tells of a semipublic event at the residence of the Papal Nuncio in 1628, at which Cardinal Bérulle, Marin Mersenne, and other savants were present and at which Descartes had his intellectual “coming out” in offering a refutation of an anti-Aristotelian lecture given by the alchemist Chandoux while reaffirming his critique of Scholasticism. According to Baillet, it was Bérulle who subsequently encouraged Descartes to elaborate his claims about providing a more solid foundation for philosophy.

It is tempting to explain Descartes’ move to the Netherlands, and the “beginning of metaphysics” that he wrote there, with Bérulle’s advice, but the documentary basis is thin and thus largely speculation. We will probably never know for certain whether Bérulle was Descartes’ “director of conscience,” as Baillet claims, but we can safely note that Bérulle was part of the young philosopher’s intellectual and spiritual milieu and a powerful figure within the wider revival of spirituality in early modern France. Another major force in the same spiritual climate was Saint Francis of Sales. A close acquaintance of Cardinal Bérulle, he underwent the same education as Descartes at the Jesuit Collège de Clermont in Paris and experienced a dramatic conversion that closely resembled Descartes’ and thus may have served as one of its models (discussed in Chapter 1). His Introduction to the Devout Life, also known as “Philothea,” became an instant success upon publication in 1608, furthering Francis’s spiritual project to overcome the separation of cloister and world and facilitate the realization of a devout life in the world, in opposition to the view that monastic life was the only way to operationalize conversion and make it permanent. The Introduction to the Devout Life provides the individual self with a set of spiritual exercises to devote one’s life to God without retreating from the secular world.

Not surprisingly, Salesian spirituality exerted significant influence across confessions and borders. But for spiritual influences on Descartes, we need not even travel as far afield as Francis of Sales. Marin Mersenne, Descartes’ closest interlocutor, was also educated at La Flèche, before studying theology and joining the Minim order.23 Matt Hettche has argued that Mersenne was a significant influence on Descartes in matters of meditation. In 1623 Mersenne began his career as an author by writing two short spiritual works, one of which, L’usage de la raison (The use of reason), aligns itself with Francis of Sales in promoting the complete spiritualization of everyday life. We don’t know whether Descartes actually read Mersenne’s early spiritual writings, but we can safely assume that he noted the effortless alacrity with which his intellectual companion moved between theology, philosophy, science, and spiritual practice.

Not only the religious sphere saw a surge of spiritual practice. Philosophy, too, experienced a surge or, better, a resurgence of spirituality. The rediscovery of many of the major works of ancient philosophy by European humanists went hand in hand with the revival of its regime of spiritual exercises. Access to the panoply of ancient philosophical schools, from the pre-Socratics through Plato to late Hellenistic philosophers, loosened Aristotle’s hold on philosophy, paving the way not only for the emergence of early modern science but also for the respiritualization of philosophy. In particular, the Neostoic revival of Stoicism brought to the fore a textual corpus (works by Tacitus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus)—that resonated deeply with the political and cultural situation of the time for having been written under similar political circumstances where monarchies were producing turmoil and uncertainty rather than peace and stability. Neostoicism’s seminal role for the political and intellectual culture of early modern Europe is well documented and researched,24 while little attention has been given to the accompanying revival of spiritual practices.25 Yet it was the regime of spiritual exercises that made Neostoicism such an effective remedium against the political and cultural malaise at the time.

Neostoicism was an essential part of Descartes’ intellectual and spiritual milieu. Not only were the Low Countries and France the centers of the Stoic revival in early modern Europe, but Stoic texts were widely used in the educational curriculum of Jesuit colleges.26 The philologist and philosopher Justus Lipsius, like Descartes a product of Jesuit education, found in Stoic wisdom an alternative to the excessive subtlety and abstraction of contemporary philosophy and fashioned on that basis a compelling reconciliation of Christian faith and Stoic wisdom.27 He was made famous by De constantia, rendered in English as Two Books of Constancy,28 which was no ordinary philosophical treatise but a contribution to the genre of philosophical consolation, a genre well established by the likes of Seneca and Boethius and designed to provide a philosophical answer to loss and suffering. Conceiving constancy as a virtue and habitus in times of war and political and social turmoil, Lipsius delineated a set of exercises to assist coping with the profound moral and cultural crisis gripping and crippling central Europe. Inspired by Lipsius, Guillaume du Vair articulated a distinctly French brand of Neostoicism in Traité de la constance, purportedly written in response to the Siege of Paris in 1590.29 Like De constantia, du Vair’s book proved enormously popular. And his Neostoicism, like that of Lipsius, was decidedly practical, a philosophy not for school but for a life under threat. A final figure of note in the spiritual milieu around 1600 was Pierre Charron, who reached back beyond Aristotle and Plato to merge ancient philosophy with Christianity, using Pyrrhonian skepticism as a tool to critique secular rationality.30 Indeed, in his main philosophical work, De la sagesse (On wisdom), he developed a practice of doubt that adumbrated Descartes’ own. By emptying itself of all dubious knowledge, the self prepares to be illuminated by God. Yet when the self is not guided by divine light, it must follow nature. Thus, for Charron, similar to the Stoics, wisdom consists in living and acting in accordance with nature. In De la sagesse he amalgamates Catholicism, philosophical skepticism, and Neostoicism to create his own unique form of spiritual practice.

Just as in the case of the Ignatian exercises, there is compelling evidence that Descartes came into direct contact with Stoicism and its spiritual practices. While the Stoic influences in Descartes’ moral theory are no longer subject of debate,31 their significance for his epistemology has gone largely unnoticed. As I detail in the following chapters, the spiritual and cognitive practices of ancient Stoicism are an important influence for Descartes’ practice of doubt and discernment in the Meditations. Stoic echoes can also be heard in the maxims comprising the provisional moral code that Descartes designed for himself so as not to be “indecisive in [his] actions” for the period in which his search for truth remained incomplete (CSM I 122; AT VI 22). The second maxim, for instance, draws on the Stoic virtue of constancy by enjoining one to follow “even the most doubtful opinions,” once adopted, “with no less constancy than if they had been quite certain” (CSM I 123; AT VI 24). By remaining steadfast in one’s opinion and judgment, the self “could free [it]self from all the regrets and remorse which usually trouble the consciences of those weak and faltering spirits who allow themselves to set out on some supposedly good course of action which later, in their inconstancy, they judge to be bad” (CSM I 123; AT VI 25). As it is for Lipsius and du Vair, constancy for Descartes is instrumental for achieving and maintaining tranquility of mind by keeping the self on course and not being thrown to and fro. In Descartes’ third maxim the Stoic echoes are even louder. He pledges to himself “to try always to master myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world.”

In general I would become accustomed to believing that nothing lies entirely within our power except our thoughts, so that after doing our best in dealing with matters external to us, whatever we fail to achieve is absolutely impossible so far as we are concerned. This alone, I thought, would be sufficient to prevent me from desiring in future something I could not get, and so to make me content. (CSM I 123–24; AT VI 25)

Descartes limits what is in our power even more radically than the Stoics by confining it essentially to the range of the cogito. But the maxim remains a transparent variation on the Stoic injunction to discern continually those things that depend on the self from those that do not and to get invested only in the former. Likewise Stoic is his understanding that recognizing the validity of the maxim and living it are two different things. The “secret of [the Stoic] philosophers,” writes Descartes, lay precisely in their regime of spiritual exercises that enabled them “to become accustomed to seeing everything in that light” (CSM I 124; AT VI 26–27).

In his correspondence with Elisabeth of Bohemia and Queen Christina of Sweden Descartes plays spiritual guide to his royal patronesses by slipping into the role of these “ancient philosophers.” Responding to Elisabeth’s fit of melancholy, he promises relief through writing about “the means which philosophy provides for acquiring that supreme felicity which common souls vainly expect from fortune, but which can be acquired only from ourselves” (CSM III 256; AT IV 252). As a starting point he suggests that they examine together what the ancients had to say on this topic and read and discuss Seneca’s De vita beata. Elisabeth proves herself an astute and critical interlocutor who pushes Descartes to go far beyond their ancient forebear and to articulate his own concept of the good life.

In the fall of 1647 Queen Christina asks Descartes to “expound to her [his] view of the supreme good understood in the sense of the ancient philosophers” (CSM III 324; AT V 81–82). Descartes, of course, answers that “God is the supreme good” (CSM III 324; AT V 82), but the supreme good that is attainable in this life is “a firm will to do well and the contentment it produces” (CSM III 324; AT IV 82). Descartes’ reasoning is again Stoic: “For the goods of the body and of fortune do not depend absolutely on us; and those of the soul can all be reduced to two heads, the one being to know, and the other to will, what is good. But knowledge is often beyond our powers; and so there remains only our will, which is absolutely within our disposal” (CSM III 325; AT V 83). And the good use of the free will “produces the greatest and most solid contentment in life” (CSM III 325; AT V 83). Stoic philosophy was not an abstract theory for Descartes but of relevance to the daily lives of himself and his patronesses.

In this brief historical sketch I have tried to indicate, albeit provisionally, that there were a lively traffic and exchange in the period between different religious movements, as well as between religion and philosophy, when it came to spiritual practices. Not surprisingly, doctrines were often controversial, but spiritual practices were in a way like adiaphora (although never labeled as such explicitly), which is to say indifferent doctrinally, allowing them to fly under the radar. While scholars have tried to connect Descartes to a particular brand and tradition of religious meditation and spiritual exercise, it has been largely overlooked that via Neostoicism he also had access to the spiritual exercises of ancient philosophy (for the one notable exception, see the following section). As I have cursorily sketched, the spiritual milieux of France and the Low Countries, in which Descartes dwelled over the course of his adult life, were vibrant and variegated, affording him a rich ensemble of spiritual practices to craft his own “art of turning.”


1. See Dominik Perler, “Was ist ein frühneuzeitlicher philosophischer Text? Kritische Überlegungen zum Rationalismus/Empirismus-Schema,” in Zwischen den Disziplinen? Perspektiven der Frühneuzeitforschung, ed. Helmut Puff and Christopher Wild (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2003), 58–65. See also John Cottingham, “The Desecularization of Descartes,” in The Persistence of the Sacred in Modern Thought, ed. Nathan Jacobs and Chris Firestone (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 15–37.

2. On the following, see Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold Davidson, trans. Michael Chase (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 59, and more generally 59–65. Cited in the text as PWL followed by page number.

3. Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–82, ed. Frédéric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 178. Cited in the text as HS followed by page number.

4. It seems important to note that the Jewish tradition, most notably Philo of Alexandria, had already adopted ancient philosophy.

5. See Jean Leclercq, “Pour l’histoire de l’expression ‘philosophie chrétienne,’Mélanges de science religieuse 9 (1952): 221–26.

6. He claims that “scholasticism was already an effort to remove the condition of spirituality laid down in all of ancient philosophy and all Christian thought (Saint Augustine and so forth)” (HS 191).

7. For the debate between these two historians of spiritual practice, see Pierre Hadot, “Un dialogue interrompu avec Michel Foucault. Convergences et divergences,” in Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique (Paris: A. Michel, 2002), 305–11. Hadot discusses some other differences in a conversation with Arnold Davidson in Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone Is Our Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 136.

8. This is not the place to sort out these seeming inconsistencies or contradictions in Foucault’s account of Descartes. For that, see Edward F. McGushin, “Foucault’s Cartesian Meditations,” International Philosophical Quarterly 45 (2005): 41–59; and his Foucault’s Askēsis: An Introduction to the Philosophical Life (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 173–94. Not entirely convincingly, McGushin argues that Descartes resorts to the spiritual knowledge of the epimeleia heautou in order to overcome it and usher in philosophy as theoretical knowledge: The Meditations “are an askesis to end all askesis” (McGushin, “Foucault’s Cartesian Meditations,” 58).

9. Michel Foucault, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire,” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: New Press, 1998), 405.

10. Throughout, “AT” refers to the standard edition of Descartes’ works, in either its original Latin or French: René Descartes, Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, 12 vols. (Paris: Vrin, 1964–76). “CSM” refers to the standard English translation: René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984–91). I have modified the translations as needed. In his dedicatory letter to Elisabeth of Bohemia, Descartes writes similarly that “philosophy is nothing else but the study of wisdom” (CSM I 192; AT VIIIA 4).

11. As Hadot observes, “Genuinely creative philosophical activity would develop outside the university, in the persons of Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz” (PWL 270).

12. Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 197 (518d).

13. For an elaboration of this media-theoretical framing of the Reformation, see Helmut Puff, Ulrike Strasser, and Christopher Wild, eds., Cultures of Communication: Theologies of Media in Early Modern Europe and Beyond (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

14. See John Van Engel, Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

15. See Rachel Fulton Brown, “My Psalter, My Self; or How to Get a Grip on the Office according to Jan Mombaer (d.c. 1501): An Exercise in Training the Attention for Prayer,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 12 (2012): 75–105.

16. For the following discussion, see Martin Nicol, Meditation bei Luther (Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 1984).

17. Martin Luther, “Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings,” in Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, trans. John Dillenberger (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 11.

18. For France, see L. W. B. Brockliss, French Higher Education in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Cultural History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987); A. Lynn Martin, The Jesuit Mind: The Mentality of an Elite in Early Modern France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

19. A particularly telling example is one of the most famous Jesuit dramas, Cenodoxus by Jakob Bidermann, which portrays the fate of the vainglorious doctor of Paris whose name lends the play its title. His condemnation to hell prompts a group of followers to convert and found the Carthusian order, on which Ignatius modeled his own new order. In other words, Cenodoxus stages in a veiled form the founding of the Jesuit order and exhorts its actors and spectators to reenact the foundational conversion. Not surprisingly, legend has it that the play’s first performance impelled the lead actor to enter the Jesuit order and thirteen of the Bavarian nobility in the audience to opt to undergo the Ignatian exercises. See Christopher Wild, “1609—The Munich Production of Jakob Bidermann’s Cenodoxus Effects the Conversion of Fourteen Nobles from the Bavarian Court: Jesuit Theater and the Blindness of Self-Knowledge,” in A New History of German Literature, ed. David Wellbery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 270–75.

20. There is significant debate about this question. See Michel Hermans and Michel Klein, “Ces Exercices spirituels que Descartes aurait pratiqués,” Archives des philosophie 59 (1996): 427–40.

21. See Anthony Levi, S.J., French Moralists: The Theory of Passions 1585 to 1649 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 136–41.

22. For Descartes’ relation with Bérulle, see Adrien Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Descartes (Paris: Chez D. Horthemels, 1691), 160–66; Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 183–85; Geneviève Rodis-Lewis, Descartes: His Life and Thought, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 67–69; Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 145–47; Ben-Yami Hanoch, Descartes’ Philosophical Revolution: A Reassessment (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 153–62.

23. See Peter Dear, Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

24. See Günther Abel, Stoizismus und Frühe Neuzeit. Zur Entstehungsgeschichte modernen Denkens im Felde von Ethik und Politik (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1978); Gerhard Oestreich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982); Mark Morford, Stoics and Neostoics: Rubens and the Circle of Lipsius (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991); Adriana McCrea, Constant Minds: Political Virtue and the Lipsian Paradigm in England, 1584–1650 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

25. One notable exception is John Sellars, “Justus Lipsius’s De constantia: A Stoic Spiritual Exercise,” Poetics Today 28 (2007): 339–62.

26. Christopher Brooke, Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 76.

27. Jan Papy, “Lipsius’ (Neo-)Stoicism: Constancy between Christian Faith and Stoic Virtue,” Grotiana 22/23 (2001–2): 47–72; John M. Cooper, “Justus Lipsius and the Revival of Stoicism in Late Sixteenth-Century Europe,” in New Essays on the History of Autonomy, ed. Natalie Brender and Larry Krasnoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 7–29; Jacqueline Lagrée, “Constancy and Coherence,” in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations, ed. Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 148–76.

28. De constantia was published in more than eighty editions between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, over forty in the Latin original and the rest in vernacular translations.

29. See Levi, French Moralists, 74–94. Du Vair also published a short handbook, De la sainte philosophie, translated as The Moral Philosophie of the Stoicks, summarizing the main tenets of his philosophy.

30. See Levi, French Moralists, 95–111; Popkin, The History of Scepticism, 7–61; José R. Maia Neto, “Charron’s Epoché and Descartes’ Cogito: The Sceptical Base of Descartes’ Refutation of Scepticism,” in The Return of Scepticism from Hobbes and Descartes to Bayle, ed. Gianni Paganini (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003), 81–113.

31. See Derk Pereboom,” Stoic Psychotherapy in Descartes and Spinoza,” Faith and Philosophy 11 (1994): 592–625; John Marshall, Descartes’s Moral Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); Edouard Mehl, “Les méditations stoïcennes de Descartes: Hypothèses sur l’influence du stoïcisme dans la constitution de la pensée cartésienne (1629–1637),” in Le stoïcisme au XVIe et au XVIIe siècle, ed. P.-F. Moreau (Paris: A. Michel, 1999), 251–80; Donald Rutherford, “On the Happy Life: Descartes vis-à-vis Seneca,” in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations, ed. Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 177–97; Donald Rutherford, “Reading Descartes as a Stoic: Appropriate Action, Virtue, and the Passions,” Philosophie antique 14 (2014): 129–55.